Close-up of a surgeon’s amputation kit (Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University Archives & Special Collections, Philadelphia)
By Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s story is not so surprising if you consider that a man did not need a medical degree to practice medicine in early 19th-century Philadelphia.
In fact, he didn’t even need a license—a practice that Philadelphia would not embrace into the final decade of the 19th century.
Although the tide was changing, the clear truth was that anyone who wanted to put out a shingle and call himself a doctor could do just that.
Basics of modern medicine, such as the infectiousness of diseases, were still under heavy dispute.
Causes of even common diseases were confusing to doctors. Appendicitis was called peritonitis, and its victims were simply left to die.
Bleeding the ill was still a widespread practice. There was no anesthesia – neither general nor local.
If you came to a doctor with a compound fracture, you had only a 50 percent chance of survival.
But Mütter was a different kind of doctor and a different kind of teacher.
By the end of the 1830s, Mütter, young, smart, ambitious, and blessed with extraordinary talents was gaining a reputation as “one of the best of good fellows” in the Philadelphia medical world and not just in the lecture hall.
“He possessed spontaneously, as it were, the art both of making and holding friends,” a fellow doctor would write of him, “a natural amenity of manner and gentleness of character, a manliness of bearing so intermingled with feminine graces that even children were attracted by it, and a love of approbation that induced him to do what he could to please others.”